Theatre in Wales

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Autumn Touring Season Kicks off with a Winner

At Opra Cymru

Oniegin: Gaeaf Gobeithion- Opra Cymru , Rhosygilwen Arts Centre , September 4, 2014
At Opra Cymru by Oniegin: Gaeaf Gobeithion- Opra Cymru Opra Cymru’s fifth annual tour comes with a difference. Jâms Coleman has been at the piano for previous productions of Verdi and Donizetti. But Tchaikovsky needs more and Coleman, while still at the keyboard, is musical director of a group of six musicians. Artistic director Patrick Young has augmented keyboard and strings with Dewi Garmon Jones on French horn and Jonathan Guy on clarinet. The sound that emerges under Coleman’s leadership fills Rhosygilwen’s hammer-beamed Oak Hall in both scale and texture.

Pushkin’s original 1833 verse-novel is fuelled by emotions of grandeur. This Onegin starts on a high. The force in Tchaikovsky’s overture is powerfully delivered by the strings, Kateŕina Marešovā on violin, Lowri Thomas viola and Angharad Maxwell cello. The production has a cast of thirteen and a whole cluster of sopranos offstage produces a sound reminiscent of the great choral tradition in Russian Orthodoxy. The libretto freely draws on Pushkin’s original but Tchaikovsky has threaded this most secular of plots with occasional sacral hints.

Opra Cymru’s production comes in its regular and inimitable form. A thirty-inch high stage is placed in the centre of the Oak Hall, the audience seated on four sides. Entries and exits are minimal. Offstage cast members take up front row seats and are themselves observers of the action.

The wealthiest opera company in the world now makes itself available to an international audience- and it is wholly admirable- via satellite and loudspeaker. But singers enclosed in a rectangle on a wall cannot compare with Opra Cymru’s vision of a return to a true demotic opera. The part of Prince Gremin is shared over the tour between Sion Goronwy, Trebor Lloyd Evans and Kees Huysmans. To experience a bass, singing from a real physical voice, at a distance of eight feet is to live a sound that electronic reproduction cannot hope to emulate.

Much power in the singing from ensemble and leads; Angharad Lyddon is a feisty Olga and Alex Vearey-Roberts a commanding Lensky. The central figures, the lovers-that-fail-to-be, are played by Matthew Durkan and Stacey Wheeler. Their final meeting ripples with loss over a course not chosen, a life that might have been lived. Tatiana’s letter scene is framed with some strong French horn. One of the longest soprano solos in the opera canon the performance is a compelling triumph.

Opra Cymru’s style of presentation does not allow much in the way of design beyond the odd chair. A bed is the stage itself. The snow for the duel scene is a white sheet with a rumple or two. Fruit to be plucked is done via gesture and the imagination. The visual emphasis is all in the costume. The action ends in full-blown ballroom splendour with ankle-length gowns and hand-to-elbow gloves in black satin. But the first act has the flavour of a traditional, more rustic Russia. Onegin may have a heavy coat with collar and cuffs in fur but Lensky wears his collar unbuttoned. The ensemble wears patterned scarves and shawls, white blouses with lines of floral brocade. The setting itselft provides a flavour of aristocratic opulence. There are no blinds or curtains on the windows that line the two side walls of the Oak Hall. A September night is allowed to fall at its own gradual pace and the view of the three courtyard jumping dolphins behind the performers slowly extinguishes.

There is much to be admired in “Oniegin: Gaeaf Gobeithion”. Choreography for the numerous dance scenes is the work of Siri Wigdel. There is the bias towards youth in both singers and musicians- Jăms Coleman has previously fitted the tours into his university vacation times. There is the boldness in taking the company repertoire outside the composers of Italy. There is the vitality in the transposition of Tchaikovsky to a sextet. The duel scene features the two male voices, baritone and tenor; its introduction includes a passage in which the music is reduced to a beautiful interchange of clarinet and piano.

A dozen companies are preparing for autumn tours over the next ten weeks. There is many a production to anticipate but Opra Cymru has opened the last third of Wales’ year in performance with a flourish and a bang.

The tour continues to Aberaeron, Bala, Porthaethwy, Cardiff, Pontyberem, Llanfair Cereinion, Cricieth, Rhosllanercrugog and Carmarthen.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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